Every Fourth of July weekend, it's common to talk about the freedoms and liberties we enjoy (and frequently take for granted) as Americans — freedoms that few other countries on Earth can match. We are proud of them, and we should be.
The first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution (known as the Bill of Rights) list a number of these basic freedoms, such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, freedom of the press and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt added two new freedoms to the American pantheon in the depths of the Great Depression: freedom from want and freedom from fear.
But there's one freedom nobody talks about — a freedom that is uniquely American, a freedom that is not enshrined in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights or any of our founding documents (to my knowledge) but is nonetheless very real and precious.
That is the freedom to screw up.
Former President George W. Bush (who knows whereof he speaks) once said, "America is the land of the second chance." I wish I had a dollar for every entrepreneur who failed in some part of his life but somehow managed to pick himself up and keep on going until he succeeded.
Historically, our guiding philosophy not only tolerates mistakes but also views them as valuable learning tools. That is what growth is all about: You make mistakes; you learn from them; you move on.
Which is why recent news events make me somewhat nervous that this essential freedom is under serious threat in America right now. Thanks to today's technology and social media, the occasional faux pas that used to be chalked up to human frailty can be spread instantly around the world and obliterate all the good that an individual has done in his or her career in a matter of minutes.
Take a popular, competent politician, media personality or CEO who commits one error of judgment that does not violate the law or have anything to do with his job performance (an extramarital affair, a thoughtless tweet, a hunting accident or a foolish remark after a couple of martinis). Before you know it, he is persona non grata. The mistake is replayed — over and over again — every time his name comes up, and the (often impressively long) record of positive achievements is buried. As Shakespeare wrote, "The evil that men do lives after them;/ The good is oft interred with their bones."
There's no question about it: Our society is becoming increasingly unforgiving and intolerant of mistakes and errors of judgment. The vigilantes and Puritans are back, folks, and that's bad news for our freedom. Like their earlier counterparts in American history, they invoke God, righteousness and justice to support their program, but the end result is still the same: The witches are going up in smoke.
Now, before I get any hate mail, I am not saying that we should tolerate illegal behavior, racism or sexual misconduct, or that people in the public eye shouldn't be very careful about what they say or do. Conduct that violates the law should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. The past couple of decades have witnessed reckless behavior on an unprecedented scale in the United States that permeates every aspect of society (Have you looked at your credit card statements lately?). A little more caution and self-restraint in all of our personal lives, and a little more forethought and proactive risk management in our business lives wouldn't hurt us very much.
But if freedom means anything at all, it means the freedom to occasionally screw up. There are no perfect people, not even heroes. Look closely at any famous person in history, politics, literature and the arts and you will see a person who was as much a screw-up as a success. In some cases you will see a truly horrible human being. It's just that the history books have chosen to play down the screw-ups and play up the successes (or the opposite, depending on who is writing them).
Also, and this is a highly inconvenient truth, many effective and successful people have lives that are grossly out of balance. As Winston Churchill said, "Great and good are seldom the same man." The line separating genius and madness is often extremely thin. Do you really want to live in a world in which only saints can qualify for public office?
You have made mistakes in your life; if you haven't, then you were never a teenager. Your parents, neighbors, teachers and college deans forgave you back then, and you are (hopefully) a better person today.
Alexander Pope once said, "To err is human; to forgive divine." In the Bible, Jesus says, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." Mistakes should be corrected; illegal behavior should punished; and care should be taken to make sure things don't happen again. But the sinners should then be forgiven — or at least tolerated — so people (and, yes, even corporations) can move on and prove to the world that their greatness overshadows their screw-ups.
After all, isn't that what a land of opportunity is all about?
Cliff Ennico ([email protected]) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series "Money Hunt." This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our webpage at www.creators.com.